1. LB: The Falcons were gashed by the run until late last season, and the problems start in the front seven. While Curtis Lofton is entrenched in the middle, the team could afford to upgrade over 34-year-old weak-side linebacker Mike Peterson. Strong-side starter Stephen Nicholas is entering a contract year. Atlanta has shown significant interest in Sean Weatherspoon of Missouri.
2. CB: Atlanta forked over serious coin to secure top free agent corner Dunta Robinson, but remains unsettled at the position opposite him. Incumbent starter Brian Williams is coming off a torn ACL, Brent Grimes would be a dime back in a good secondary, and the Falcons don’t envision 2009 third-round pick Christopher Owens as more than a sub-package player.
3. WR: Harry Douglas is expected to return after missing last season, but there’s no telling how much speed he’ll have left coming off a torn ACL. Speed-challenged split end Michael Jenkins also offers no play-making ability. The Falcons need a dynamic after-catch threat with vertical skills to execute coordinator Mike Mularkey’s downfield passing attack.
4. DE: With 2.5 sacks in three seasons as a starter, former top-ten pick Jamaal Anderson is shaping up as a bust. Situational rushers Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury have promise, but aren’t every-down ends. Pro Bowler John Abraham turns 32 in a month.
1. WR: With former No. 45 overall pick Dwayne Jarrett continuing to fall short of expectations and Muhsin Muhammad all but done, it’s time for the Panthers to give Steve Smith and new starting quarterback Matt Moore some help. Smith, 31 in May, isn’t going to last forever, and Kenneth Moore would be Carolina’s No. 3 receiver if the season began today.
2. DT: The Panthers have gone cheap on their defensive line, and it caught up to them last year when Ma’ake Kemoeatu was lost for the season with a torn Achilles’ tendon. Some serious beef in the middle would at least take pressure off reserve types Louis Leonard, Tank Tyler, Ed Johnson, and Corvey Irvin.
3. CB: G.M. Marty Hurney’s lowball tender for restricted free agent Richard Marshall hasn’t backfired yet, but Marshall is only under control for 2010 and the team remains vulnerable at nickel back. The Panthers would be in a heap of trouble if Marshall or Chris Gamble got hurt.
4. QB: Moore and former undrafted free agent Hunter Cantwell make up the most unproven quarterback depth chart in the league. At the absolute minimum, the Panthers need to find a developmental passer to groom as Moore’s long-term backup.
1. LB: Scott Fujita’s departure leaves former undrafted free agent JoLonn Dunbar atop the depth chart at strong-side linebacker, and Scott Shanle has been underwhelming on the weak side. The Saints may give Sean Weatherspoon of Missouri and Daryl Washington of TCU long looks with the No. 32 selection.
2. DE: Newly signed Alex Brown gives the Saints credibility at left defensive end, but Bobby McCray’s chronic back problems leave room for an upgrade in the nickel rushing department. New Orleans needs youth at the position with Brown, McCray, and Will Smith all 29 or older.
3. S: Darren Sharper remains unsigned, and the Saints are in no rush to move Malcolm Jenkins from cornerback to free safety. Converted corner Usama Young has settled in as a core special teamer, but isn’t a likely option to replace Sharper full time.
4. RB: Saints coach Sean Payton has done well to limit Pierre Thomas’ workload, but values bruisers at tailback. The team very nearly traded up to acquire Chris Wells in last year’s first round. A two-down thumper like Jonathan Dwyer of Georgia Tech could be an option with the 64th overall pick.
1. WR: The acquisition of Reggie Brown can’t hurt arguably the league’s weakest receiver corps, but he’s not a great bet to make a difference in the passing game. Maurice Stovall and Michael Clayton also lack flash out wide. A field-stretching, big-play threat could help franchise quarterback Josh Freeman make the most of his cannon arm.
2. DT: Incumbent “three technique” starter Ryan Sims managed just one sack a year ago and was too easily washed out against the run. With the Bucs finishing dead last in rush defense, upgrading the interior defensive line needs to be a priority.
3. DE: None of the Buccaneers’ ends have proven capable of playing effectively on all three downs. Greg White, or “Stylez G,” is a fine situational player, but shouldn’t top the depth chart like he does today. Luckily for Tampa Bay, this is a deep draft for pass rushers.
4. CB: Aqib Talib is emerging as a true shutdown cornerback, but 35-year-old Ronde Barber is falling off a cliff opposite him. It’s hard to imagine E.J. Biggers, Elbert Mack, or Brandon Anderson emerging as a serious candidate to supplant Barber.